This is the fifth in a series of posts featuring some women’s experience with natural family planning. The previous four can be read here, here, here, and here. For the post that originally inspired this project, click here. To read about the purpose of and rules for this project, click here.
What a relief it is to discover that there is a place that Catholics can come and share their real-life experiences with NFP without fear of getting a public internet pounding, conservative-Catholic style.
Brief history: I grew up in a very orthodox, very authoritarian Catholic home. My husband’s family was also ultra-orthodox (particularly his mother), but not quite so authoritarian about it. We both went to one of those small, very orthodox Catholic colleges dedicated to the study of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, etc. We fell in love and married in our early/mid twenties (both virgins in every sense of the word) and just figured we would accept children as they came, because that is what we had been raised to believe was our duty as Catholics.
We did try an early method of symptothermal NFP (it wasn’t CCL–I honestly can’t remember the name of the method) in the early months of our marriage, not to delay pregnancy, but just to learn about my body. We quickly tossed the thermometer because I am a bad sleeper at best, and being woken up every morning at the same time to check my temp was really disrupting my sleep.
I became pregnant when we had been married nearly 11 months. The baby was born, I was depressed and stressed out in ways I never thought possible (let’s just say the ole natural maternal instincts that were supposed to magically kick in pretty much never did—even decades later! but that’s another story), but also certain I would not get pregnant right away because it had taken me nearly a year to get pregnant without using anything, and now I had a baby nursing on me constantly.
#1 was six months old when I became pregnant with #2. After #2, even more depressed and stressed out, I decided it was time for real NFP. We signed up for Couple-to-Couple classes. The couple teaching it was odd, to put it charitably. And it felt beyond odd to discuss my cervical mucus with a man that was so socially off-kilter in the first place. But I was determined to make it work. I woke up every day to check my temp (becoming more exhausted by the day), checked mucus just as I was supposed to, and my chart was a mess because I always had fertile mucus.
After several meetings, the CCL husband looked at my jagged-tooth chart, looked back up at me and said, “There have been times when my wife and I have had to go 6 months or more without making love due to confusing signs”.
My husband and I left that class, tossed the charts, and were pregnant again within three weeks. I miscarried. Six months later, we were pregnant again. I miscarried. This time the doctor told me to wait at least 6 months to get pregnant again (I had had a D&C and part of the tissue looked like it could be molar in nature). We went to a Creighton teacher and learned a new method of NFP. We worked very closely with the Creighton teacher to try to get a handle on my charts, but they were always a mess. Somehow we winged it through the six months. The day my MD gave me the all-clear six months later, we decided to ignore the chart because we just really, really needed to be close to each other after all that abstinence. I am nearly certain I conceived that very night.
That pregnancy was uneventful, but after the baby was born, we were going through a really tough time financially, and postpartum depression was again an issue. I was trying to read my signs the best I could, breastfeeding constantly, and we were going through the stress of a cross-country move we could not afford in any way, shape, or form, for a job that was not going to support our family anyway, so I was going to need to go out and get a job. Halfway through the move, I discovered I was pregnant with #4 (#3 was just over three months old). I laughed hysterically; what else was there to do? My pregnancy with #4 was stressful but relatively uneventful.
We hit rock bottom financially and ended up homeless the next summer, living with a relative 1000 miles away from where my husband was working. It was hard, with a newborn and three other children, the oldest not yet five. We secured low-income housing near my husband’s work, and I went back to school, this time for a degree that would actually give me a marketable skill.
We were on WIC, and I was determined not to become pregnant again because I needed to get that degree to get us out of the low-income housing. Our kids were being exposed to things we never wanted them to be. We worked with another Creighton teacher and abstained for long periods. One particularly long cycle, we had abstained for six weeks, and I was certain we were finally safe. We made love that night, and—surprise!–two weeks later I had a positive pregnancy test. I cried for two days straight.
Several weeks later, I miscarried. I felt nothing but relief and joy—and guilt and sadness for feeling that way. I spoke to our priest about how guilty I felt for being so happy to have miscarried; he was very pastoral and comforting and assured me we can’t help our feelings. I resolved never again to get pregnant in a situation in which my reaction to a miscarriage would be relief and joy.
For the next couple of years, we worked with the Creighton teacher. I was diagnosed with a very serious chronic incurable disease; it was very important not to get pregnant while I was on certain medications. Periods of abstinence were long. The charts remained a mystery at best. Yellow stamps, the solution everybody swore would end my NFP woes, didn’t help. We would resort to other means of being sexually close while going through periods of abstinence. I was racked with guilt until I could get to confession, as I am scrupulous by nature.
Some nights I was sleepless over it, yet I needed to be close to my husband. And he needed to be close to me.
I worked while I was going to school. Just over two years after delivering #4, I became pregnant with #5. It really threw a wrench into my schooling, as it meant I would have to be doing clinicals and going back to class when the baby was just a week old. A relative came up to stay for several weeks, and my husband was able to take the baby to work with him on my clinical days, so we managed to pull off the remaining six weeks of class, but it took a huge toll on my health. By the end of the summer break, I landed in the hospital for a week. I managed to get through my senior year without any more hospitalizations, but was nearly hospitalized again right around graduation.
I began a lucrative career, regained my health slowly, and continued to use NFP but always with long periods of abstinence and frequent falls into “sin” with my husband. I became increasingly frustrated and angry with God and the Church. I felt used by NFP (never by my husband, who had done his level best to help with all the charting and angst of NFP all those years), only able to make love when it felt least good to me. I almost left the Church at one point, which devastated my husband. But I had grown up squarely in the school of, “If you are going to be a Catholic in Name Only—which, of course, anybody who doesn’t follow the Church’s teaching on NFP and married sex is–get out of the Church”.
I just found it harder and harder to believe that the life we were living as a couple was the kind of life God intended for couples to live.
Another pregnancy happened, and I miscarred again. I wasn’t relieved, but I certainly wasn’t devastated, either. It was the earliest miscarriage I ever experienced (happened just a few days after I missed my period). We remained in an ambivalent state about whether we should have more children. I was in better health than I had been in a while. About a year later (still limping through with messed-up charts and “sinful” activity together, followed by being racked with guilt until confession), I became pregnant with #6. It was a rough pregnancy. I gained a huge amount of weight (due to the meds I was on to control my disease) and ended up on bedrest. The baby was born two weeks early and was healthy, but really scrawny. My body just had nothing left to give the poor little thing.
After #6 was born, my husband—who had never, ever in all our years of marriage suggested using any form of artificial contraception–told me he was going to have a vasectomy. I was shocked. I told him he needed to be very, very sure. That I would NEVER ask him to do such a thing. But that I also was afraid to have a tubal ligation because of my health problems and because if a tubal fails, I could end up with an ectopic pregnancy, and I would morally have a hard time with the thought of a baby of ours not being able to grow to term and having to be removed from my body because of something I had done to my body by choice. He was sure, and I felt nothing but gratitude to him and awe that he loved me enough to do something that was clearly a sacrifice to him. He told me enough was enough; he had seen the damage and the toll all those pregnancies had taken on me, both physically and psychologically, and that God had blessed us with six healthy children for which he was eternally grateful.
I cried the night before he had it done. It was so final. I asked him repeatedly if he was sure, absolutely sure, that I didn’t want him to ever feel pressured or forced into it in any way. We talked about the morality of it. He basically decided he would do it, he would confess it, and it would be a done deal. Isn’t that the sin of presumption? He said it was simply being hopeful in the mercy and understanding of an ever-loving God. He went through with it. We both confessed it—I was completely and totally honest with the priest, told him the only reason I had any real contrition for it was that I was afraid of burning for all eternity. He absolved me anyway and told me to be at peace.
Our marriage has always been strong, but it has only gotten stronger in the years since my husband’s procedure. No longer do I feel like a science experiment. No longer do I feel like I can only have intercourse when it feels the least good for me. That if I have it when it feels out-of-this-world-fantastic, I had better be prepared to pay the price of a pregnancy for the experience.
I can’t speak for other women, but I am not nearly as orgasmic when I am not fertile as when I am.
Sex has never been about the orgasm for me, and I could honestly live my life without having another (not that I would WANT to, mind you!! but I could do it), but I could not live my life without the absolute soul-melding kind of experience I have when making love to my husband during the fertile times. It’s a very different experience for me than making love during non-fertile times. It’s a totally melting of myself into him.
Oh, we tried all sorts of things when doing NFP to make that happen when not fertile, but none of it mattered. When I am not fertile, I have to really fight the urge to make a list of to-do for the next day in my head while my husband is getting physical with me (and I manage to win the fight and get in the mood eventually!), but when I am fertile I am completely into the entire sensual love-making experience, loving every erotic second of it. It makes me feel just entirely united to him, that we truly melt into one. And how he loves it when I am that way!
I personally feel that not enough attention has been paid to the female sexual experience. It seems to me that in the Catholic understanding of sex—penis in the vagina for ejaculation—the female sexual experience is really rather inconsequential. So what if the woman can’t ever make love when it feels best to her ever again in her entire life. Suck it up and quite your whining about it. Be glad you can have sex ever. And better be ready to pay that debt whenever your husband wants it lest you contribute to his sin.
Because of the circles I grew up in and still live in, I know many, many couples practicing NFP. The vast majority are not very happy, and many will say behind closed doors that it has been a real strain on their marriage. Several orthodox Catholic married women have admitted to me that they don’t really like sex much in the first place (which seems to me to indicate a whole other level of problems in the relationship), and I have to wonder if it is because they can’t really have sex when it feels great to them (most of the women my age now have more children than I do and many have health or financial issues that make another pregnancy a real stress in their lives) and when they are infertile, they feel pressured to perform because they husbands are pretty desperate by that point in their cycle. I know from experience how used that can make you feel, even when you have a great husband you KNOW would never consciously use you in any way, shape, or form.
I have also noticed that some of these women really seem to think poorly of their husbands’ sexual drives. If a man so much as commits one sexual sin, they are convinced their husbands are addicted to masturbation or porn and that they are using them for their own pleasure. I’ve known some of these guys for more than two decades, and some of them are really good men, and it’s sad to me that their wives view them that way because maybe they checked out a magazine they shouldn’t have one day in a moment of sexual starvation and weakness.
I’m not saying it’s okay, but I also don’t think it means a man is nothing more than a sexual monster. It seems to me there is a rampant fear among Catholic couples, a fear of somehow “using” each other sexually. I’m not saying it can’t happen, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t have an awareness of the possibility of it, but I do think that all this emphasis on how contraceptives or “using NFP with a contraceptive mentality” turn us into objects to our spouses has really warped the perspective of a lot of Catholic couples I know. My husband would die before he would use me as an object, and I don’t speak with hyperbole on that one. He has an immense amount of respect for me and would lay down his very life for me in a heartbeat.
Another observation: many of these very same couples would sing the praises of NFP to an outsider, that it does wonders for marriage, and that it is so much better than contraceptives. It’s not that they would intend to lie, or even believe they were really lying. It’s just that this JPII generation, this generation raised post-Vatican II and raised in a Catholicism reactionary to the Council, knows the importance of being a good example to the rest of the sinners of the world. To lead others into sin by admitting how awful NFP has been for us (thus giving people an excuse to use contraceptives themselves) would rest very heavily upon our souls.
And so orthodox Catholic couples raised on the teachings of Humanae Vitae are often very inauthentic in their living out of the Catholic notion of marriage and NFP. And the general public can sense the inauthenticity, and for this reason I don’t believe the general public is in any danger of converting to the “joys” of NFP married life any time in the near future.
I’d like to add that I actually love the concept of NFP–the healthiness of it, the crunchiness of it, the idea of a woman being in total control of her fertility through mere knowledge of her cycle. Where it all fell down for me was in the practice of it. I have nothing but admiration for those couples who really do love NFP and find it wonderful and healthy for their relationships. I wanted and planned to be just like them! But I failed utterly in that department and will have to face God for it on judgment day.
I remain on the fence about Church teaching in this regard. I don’t know if it is right or wrong—I am exhausted at the thought of trying to figure it all out. All I know is how much strain–and even damage–following the teaching caused in our marriage. And I see how the contraception issue has divided Catholics in a really harmful way. In my own personal life, I have found that those who don’t contracept are mightily judgmental of those who do. I used to be that way. For me, a lot of it was sour grapes, so I suspect that might be the case for at least some others. It’s a real drag to follow the Church teaching and be miserable for it. We have not told any of our Catholic friends or family about my husband’s procedure—we would be very much looked down upon for our sinfulness—and it would probably really tick everybody off because we have been blessed with a remarkably happy marriage.
When there is such dissonance between what the Church teaches we will experience following her teachings on sexuality and NFP and what many couples actually do experience when they have tried their level best and given it their all for many, many years, is it really any wonder so many abandon the teaching altogether and throw themselves upon the mercy of God, hoping and praying we won’t burn for eternity for wanting to be close to our spouses?